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Chelsea 2-2 Manchester United, Premier League: Tactical Analysis

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A game of two halves, two styles, two goals each.

First half

The first half saw Chelsea dominate possession in midfield, while United defended with numbers around their box to reduce the amount of chances Chelsea could create, and look to counter with their speed on the wings.

United’s approach when Chelsea had the ball in midfield was four-pronged:

  1. Lukaku closed down Chelsea’s central defender on the ball if they progressed into United’s half (otherwise he remained between the central defenders)
  2. Reduce the influence of Jorginho by using Mata to cover him
  3. Have the wingers drop back to cover Chelsea’s fullbacks
  4. Ensure they had numbers deep to be able to shift to the side and prevent Chelsea from creating overloads or 1-v-1s in wide areas.

Both Matić and Pogba were required to perform solid defensive roles in this setup, which included protecting the backline by moving across to the side of the ball; picking up Hazard and Willian when they left the fullbacks and moved inside; moving up to pressure Chelsea’s wide central midfielders and cover them when they moved forward; and cover for Lukaku if one of Chelsea’s central defenders had advanced with the ball past him.

Although this approach didn’t nullify all of the options Chelsea have to create, it certainly reduced the efficiency of Chelsea’s creation. For example, Chelsea’s central defenders could move forward with the ball into space in midfield and then look to play passes behind United’s backline. Chelsea were capable of creating chances this way, but if it were Jorginho finding these spaces in midfield to play the passes behind, then the likelihood of chances created would’ve increased.

Kovačić and Kanté could help this situation by dropping back for the ball and using the spaces to move forward. Kovačič would carry the ball forward when the space ahead of him was open and his dribbling would allow him to go past United defenders and take the ball up to the box, but United maintained numbers back to defend crosses into the box. Passes played into Morata would see the moves break down too often where the pressure of Smalling was often too strong for Morata to hold off, while rotations on the wings would open up some opportunities for Alonso on the inside (especially joining the box).

When Chelsea moved higher up into the final third with the ball, Mata would drop back and provide support to the central midfielders to control Willian and Hazard moving inside, while Lukaku would drop back to get closer to Jorginho. Chelsea could again keep the ball, but only by winning set pieces were they able to score.

Chelsea pressed far more aggressively from midfield and the final third than the visitors, especially when United’s central defenders had the ball. Chelsea were often able to force passes back, which would invariably be played long or out for a throw. United were able to reset and reorganize their shape at that point, to generally good effect in averting any danger.

When United could move up with the ball into Chelsea’s half, they had some success in sustaining their position, but they were much more direct in their approach to try to immediately create with numbers inside the box (front four and Pogba). Chelsea would similarly require free kicks to allow them to open back up with the ball to push United back (when United pressed after a lost ball in the final third, they could often end up recovering the ball in midfield).

United also had some success through counters on the wings. Mata could receive the ball well with his first touch, before moving the ball wide to use the speed of Martial and Rashford running behind in the space vacated by Chelsea’s advanced fullbacks — especially for Rashford vs. the attacking Alonso. However, few of United’s attacks led to chances to score and it would be Chelsea going into break with the lead.

Second half

The second half was much more open than the first. In the opening stages, Chelsea had chances to extend their lead, but the first opportunity United had to maintain pressure in the final third with the ball saw them use their numbers inside the box to capitalise and score an equaliser.

The game then went back to a similar pattern as in the first half with Chelsea positioned with the ball in midfield once again, but losing it much more often and allowing United opportunities to counter. Having to then retreat more often to recover the ball, Chelsea’s high press wasn’t as effective or tight as in the first half, while United’s confidence grew and their pressing in midfield became much more aggressive.

Without the same distances and aggression from Chelsea’s press in midfield, United could hold onto the ball, draw Chelsea out and then exploit the spaces left behind, which Mata took advantage of on the right to set up United’s second goal.

After United took the lead goal, Mata began to lose Jorginho defensively and was quickly replaced by Herrera to provide extra defensive cover. There were more opportunities for both sides to score as the half went on, with the game opening up again and becoming end-to-end, which suited United’s style much more than Chelsea — the battle of the long balls frustrating Sarri to no end.

But, as United tried to see out the narrow victory, Chelsea were able to force an equaliser to maintain their unbeaten run.

Conclusion

Chelsea had opportunities in the first half and at the start of the second half to build upon their lead, but couldn’t take them. United reduced the influence of Jorginho and Hazard in the game, and posed a threat during counters and when they were able to sustain attacks with numbers in the final third. The second half suited United much more than the first, where Chelsea would lose the ball as they attempted to play more direct, allowing United to counter and create chances. However, like Chelsea in the the opening fifty minutes of the game, United missed opportunities to extend their lead, which kept Chelsea in the game and allowed them to find the late equalising goal.